Auction houses turn "collectibles" into serious art

When classic TV shows are compared to famous artists, does that make Gene Roddenberry Rene Magritte?

On Oct. 5, Christie’s New York will unleash “40 Years of Star Trek: The Collection.” With 1,000 items culled from the CBS-Paramount vaults, it’s the largest assemblage of TV memorabilia in the auction house’s history.

Auction estimates range from $100-$150 for “metal Klingon cups” (from the catalogue: “two battered spun-metal cups used as Klingon bloodwine cups in ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ and ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ and reputed to have been originally used in Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ “) to $25,000-$30,000 for the visual effects miniature of the Starship Enterprise-D from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“One-of-a-kind items (like) the ‘Star Trek’ auction are works of art,” says Zach Oat, editor of toy collectors’ mag ToyFare. “Just as artists go in and out of favor, certain TV shows, comics and movies go in and out of favor and that has an effect on their value.”

True, these are the same items that might appeal to the unwashed masses who lined up a month before each installment of the “Star Wars” saga. However, anyone who spends six weeks in costume waiting for a movie ticket probably doesn’t have a job — and Christie’s doesn’t have much to do with people like that.

Christie’s is marketing “Star Trek” to fine art collectors as well as TV aficionados and hardcore sci-fi buffs — and a few who are all three. Microsoft founder Paul Allen, whose Science Fiction Museum at Experience Music Project in Seattle hosted a tour of exhibit items earlier this month, is said to be eyeing a few pieces for himself. Says Cathy Elkies, director of Christie’s Special Collections, “People relate to these objects in a very personal and particular way.”

And how. As a population weaned on pop culture comes of age, the catchall “collectibles market” — anything from baseball cards to action figures — continues to grow, to $10.4 billion in 2005 from $6.6 billion in 1993.

Next week’s auction at Christie’s London of 4,000 Barbie dolls and accessories will also contribute to that haul. Among the top items are the dour-faced brunette, Barbie No. 1 (auction estimate: $1,500-$2,250), and a 1965 “Miss Astronaut” outfit, still in its original packaging and expected to bring in $750-$1,125.

The collectibles market has blossomed to such a degree that it has spawned a would-be “Antiques Roadshow” with the Collectible Grading Authority, an appraisal outfit in Duluth, Ga. that renders score-based judgments on 50,000 original action figures, dolls and die-cast toys every year.

A perfect score is virtually impossible; CGA customer service rep T.L. Alexander says the highest she’s seen was a 95 for a 1982 G. I. Joe Cobra Commander. (It sold for $15,000.)

“They were manufactured as toys,” says collectibles broker Tom Derby. “They weren’t made to be judged by every minute flaw.”

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